Was there any defining moment while you grow up when you decided to become an entrepreneur?
When you are born in a family where virtually everyone is a business person, you are well aware of your destiny. The knowledge of the business was embedded in our upbringing; my siblings and I were involved with work back when we were in class six. Our father did not want us to join our company as bosses right after graduation, rather he wanted us to become colleagues of our employees. Experienced executives of respective departments mentored us. Consequently, by the time we graduated, we had been mentored by a General A manager who had been an executive and that augmented our acceptability. Besides, we were allowed to work in sectors which we were interested in. As I had a knack for cars from a very young age, I was given the responsibility to put oil in the car and calculate the mileage when I was in class six. I was also given the responsibility of maintaining the roster of commercial vehicles.
After that, I joined the head office at stationary purchase before moving to raw material procurement. By the time I graduated, I had more than ten years of experience of working in our company, so I never faced any cultural shock. Additionally, throughout my higher studies in abroad, I worked in different organizations as my father had the policy that you must have three years of prior work experience before joining the company. So, instead of wasting time, I earned my stipulated work experience while I was doing my higher studies.
He also wanted us to experience management styles of different cultures and assimilate them into our company. The combination of academic learning and practical experience gives the actions a lot more value.
Do you believe you would have been a different person, had there been no family legacy?
I never thought of it that way; maybe it would have been different; I might not have been blessed with so many opportunities otherwise. I executed the opportunities and scopes I was given to be the man I am today. Everybody has potential, but to turn that into something meaningful, someone has to provide that opportunity, and that’s true for everyone.
You seem to be hugely influenced by your father’s philosophy and vision. Are there any differences between his and your leadership styles?
Every human being has a leadership figure whom he follows throughout his life. From a religious perspective, our Prophet Hazrat Muhammad Sallallahu Alihiwasallam is the greatest leader this world has ever seen. We are following teachings that he left for us 1400 years ago. From a religious and family perspective, I am heavily influenced by my father, and so is the case for the rest of my family members. More than a leader, he has been an incredible family member. The way he nurtured us had immense
implications on our lives. None of us in the family can match his leadership capacity and foresightedness.
Has it ever occurred that he is in a way eclipsing you to bloom?
My father’s management style was very different. The day we stepped in, he left the company. Unless we reached out to him, he never interfered in our work. My father was a self-educated person, the kind of corporate foresightedness and compatibility that he possessed with so limited educational background is almost unimaginable.
He has given us the complete opportunity to execute what we wanted to as long as our Board of Directors were convinced. It is a common practice within the organization that any business proposal must get the consent of the Board of Directors to go ahead with. If unanimously there is a disagreement, that means I have failed to present my case.
How would you define your leadership style?
I prefer to be the person who reaches out, instead of dictating, I prioritize on becoming part of the journey — training them to achieve goals that the company desires from them. Instead of micromanaging, I prefer to establish a set of goals that we want them to achieve. We also expect them to learn about the culture and vision that we ourselves have acquired from our company. Until an employee empathizes with the core values of the organization, genuine respect for the values will not develop. Irrespective of individual performance, everyone needs to grasp the real purpose of this organization. A company cannot sustain solely on financial aspirations. I read somewhere that “Profit is the only logical thing to follow in business”, it is also crucial to understand why we need to make that profit. It enables them to explore more avenues and perform more efficiently. We practice the culture of enabling each other and grow.
Additionally, it’s extremely important for us to create a sense of belonging among the employees, and make sure they treat this entity like their own family. Even when people part ways with Anwar Group, they always feel part of the family. Most importantly, we have a very open culture at our offices; everyone is encouraged to share their ideas. I know about 80% of my employees by their names which is still less than my father as he knew every employee personally.
Can you share with us a challenging moment in your career?
I am actually going through one right now. Our economy is currently going through a lot of transformations; it is a challenge to assimilate to so many changes. I am also finding it difficult to maintain a work-life balance. Consequently, I have been trying to unlearn and relearn; unlearn some obsolete ideas and re-learn what I should have learned in a different way, in terms of execution and management styles.
With time, customer perception and habits have changed and we are trying to understand the transformation and get ahead of the curve.
What do you believe is the catalyst for this change in customer motivation?
If I talk about the jute industry in particular, unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough developments. The biggest reason behind this is the lack of R&D. In terms of policy perspective, we have actually failed to protect this industry. To some extent, we have politicized this sector and as a result, this sector has remained neglected. It is extremely regrettable because this is the only product whose entire process, from raw jute to finished product is generated in Bangladesh. That means we have the opportunity to make a 100% value addition in this sector. Unfortunately, until now, we are stuck in its rudimentary uses in the micro and cottage industry scale.
I have been very excited about “Sonali Bag” and I have personally talked to Dr. Mubarak Ahmad Khan about its commercial availability. As of now, the product is not ready for commercial production but even if he manages to make it available, I am skeptical whether we will be able to utilize the benefits.
How eager do you believe is the government to share the knowledge with the private sector of the breakthroughs made in the jute industry?
Our Prime Minister has already stated informally to share them (the knowledge) with the private sector. But often, that is not possible due to bureaucratic complications. There are also questions about intellectual property rights, which solely belongs to the government. But I believe the inventor should be rewarded through financial benefits from the rights even though he was working under the government when he made the breakthrough. It will encourage more innovations and some of the most innovative countries practice that.
The government could have benefited a lot more by licensing out the rights to use the technology in the private sector. That’s how the most developed countries have gone so far ahead in innovation, they are encouraging it (innovation) by allowing to share the proceeds of the usage rights among stakeholders in the innovation process.
It also encourages the entities in the private sector to invest in innovative programs as the money is going to the different research institutions and universities. Unfortunately, initiatives like these are non-existent in our country.
Where do you believe the reluctance to innovate or share knowledge amongst us stem from?
It stems from a mix of several negative mindsets that exist in our society in general. Ignorance, arrogance, general lack of knowledge on how to capitalize on such things and bureaucratic mindset have deterred us from the path of innovation.
Now coming back to Bangladesh’s economy. What do you believe is the biggest challenge for Bangladesh’s economy right now?
One of our biggest assets that we keep talking about is our demographic dividend. More than 65% of our population is 25 or younger, a significant number of them are already in the workforce. We have to ask ourselves whether we are creating enough high-skilled jobs for them.
We have to prepare our workforce for the fourth industrial revolution and develop the necessary skill set to keep up with the changing world. A few days back, at Hamad International Airport in Qatar, I noticed, most employees were Nepalese. From lounge to security, everywhere you look, there was an overwhelming number of Nepali nationals employed there. It was also very surprising to see so many Nepalese women employed in blue-collar jobs there, whereas, women migrant workers from Bangladesh generally work as a house help. Conversely, the workforce we are producing at the moment will not be interested in low skilled labor such as house help or night guard, therefore, they might find it difficult to land blue-collar jobs in the future if those are already occupied by other nationals. Therefore, managing our greatest asset is our biggest concern.
Do you believe the industry-academia gap is responsible for the lack of skill set development?
Absolutely! Our educational institutions are preparing the youth for the present rather than the future. We are not paying any attention to future needs and that’s true even in the private sector. I cannot find Bangladeshi CTOs (Chief Technology Officer) who can guide me to modernize our office and industry for future compatibility. They are good for the current perspective but do lack the vision for the future.
How can we solve this problem?
Unfortunately, we have to import skilled workforce in our country, who can train and educate our local employees. But if we bring in somebody who will take up his role and not train others, that will be detrimental. Currently, the transfer of knowledge is missing, we are bringing in people but not allowing them to grow into their shoes. Until we do that, bringing people is not going to provide us an advantage.
At Anwar Group, we have a few foreign employees who have contractual obligations to groom a particular number of local managers within a certain period of time. Foreign employees are more driven than the locals because they have certain sets of targets to achieve to earn contract renewal.
How do we change this mindset amongst ourselves of taking things for granted at work?
I believe, it has a lot to do with our own managerial skill-set. Often, we fail to establish accountability in our institutions. We also fail to empathize with the importance of carrying out a task responsibly in our institutions. It is extremely important to make employees feel that they are part of the institution and that’s the responsibility of managers. You must have very good managers because, at the end of the day, everybody has differing potential and capacity; we have to help them to grow to their full potential.
One of the concerns we have about unemployment problem is lack of investment and developing new enterprises. Do you believe we have favorable climate for foreign investment?
Absolutely not! Over the five decades since independence, the private sector has been the major driver of our economy. If the private sector is not comfortable with the current environment, how can you expect foreign companies to invest in our country? We have a long way to go in ensuring a standard business environment. Our development will not be sustainable if we fail to improve our business environment at a pace faster than the rate of our development. Our growth rate of 8% did not happen overnight: it is the result of a lot of hard work. We now have the opportunity to grow exponentially if we can remove the barriers to doing business. Bangladesh is far behind in Cost of Doing Business and Ease of Doing Business index. This year we have progressed eight steps on the Ease of Doing Business Index on the other hand Pakistan has improved 28 steps. In the cost of doing business, we are only making our processes more complicated–according to proposed regulations companies will now have to file tax returns of their employees. How can they expect me to file tax returns of 14,000 of my employees? Instead of making things easier, they (bureaucrats) are walking backward.
What is your take on the startup scene of our country? Are we doing enough to develop entrepreneurs?
Alhamdulillah! I believe we have done quite well. The initiatives started from the private sector and now the government is, well, on board. Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) and ICT division have undertaken some commendable programs which were not there when we were coming up as entrepreneurs. At that time, there were very few opportunities to formally fund your business through investors. Over the years’ numerous organizations have invested heavily in developing student entrepreneurs. I am thrilled to see so many initiatory steps are taken to develop them (entrepreneurs). However, we have to simplify the processes of business licensing, registration and taxation to see a robust improvement in the start-up scene.
What is your take on the future of fintech in Bangladesh?
As a company, we are also keeping a close eye on the sector, as we also have a number of financial institutions. I believe, we are a little behind, not only as a company but also as a country. The financial institutions are trying to jump on that bandwagon, there have been discussions on bringing block-chain and also how companies like us can implement them in our operations. However, as I have stated previously, I am yet to find a CTO who can guide me through the implementation process.
How can we reduce overall corruption in our country?
Digitization is definitely the most important tool against corruption. By reducing the number of human interactions. We can ensure there are fewer chances of corruption. More and more bureaucratic complications will end up making the business processes more vulnerable to corruption and eventually to failure. Most importantly, the citizens need to be aware of their rights.
You travel a lot, has that changed you as a business person?
I try to learn from each and every trip that I make, whether its international or within the boundaries of our country. I try to bring something back from every travel.
Can you please share one such learning moment?
It is difficult to point out one particular moment. For example, I just mentioned about something that I witnessed in Doha Airport, I usually share this information with my counterparts who are involved in the sector and ask them about why we (Bangladesh) are missing out on these jobs. From a company perspective, we joined a learning session where they discussed how a CEO can actually become a bottleneck in terms of the company’s growth and what needs to be done to avoid this scenario. After coming back, I implemented that knowledge in our company.
Can you simplify in a few lines about how a CEO becomes a bottleneck in a company?
Everybody has a set of knowledge and a certain bandwidth, if you have a challenge that is bigger than you, to solve that problem, you actually have to move up towards it. Until and unless you have that knowledge, you won’t be able to reach there and solve it, the same thing happens in a company. To resolve the bottleneck, you have to surpass yourself by evolving through learning and adaptation.